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Counter Proliferation Investigation Unit
01/09/2013

British businessman sentenced in El Paso to nearly 3 years for aiding and abetting the illegal export of defense articles

EL PASO, Texas — A British businessman was sentenced Wednesday to 33 months in federal prison for attempting to export to Iran a special component of the Hawk Air Defense Missile. The case was investigated by U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

British businessman Christopher Tappin, 66, of Orpington, Kent, was sentenced Jan. 9 to two years and nine months in federal prison.

In addition to the prison term, the U.S. district judge ordered Tappin to pay an $11,357.14 fine and to be placed under supervised release for three years after he completes his prison sentence.

On Nov. 1, Tappin appeared in federal court to reverse his original not-guilty plea, and he admitted culpability in the scheme. He pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the illegal export of defense articles, waiving his right to appeal his conviction or challenge the sentence handed down.

By pleading guilty, Tappin admitted that from December 2005 to January 2007 he knowingly aided and abetted others, including his Cyprus-based business associate Robert Frederick Gibson and Portland, Ore., resident Robert Caldwell, in an attempt to illegally export zinc/silver oxide reserve batteries to Iran. These batteries are a special component of the Hawk Air Defense Missile; they are designated as a defense article on the U.S. Munitions List. They require a license or written authorization from the U.S. State Department to be exported.

"Protecting our national security is one of HSI's highest priorities," said Dennis A. Ulrich, acting special agent in charge of HSI El Paso. "This sentence is the result of more than six years of tenacious investigative work by HSI special agents, who are relentless in their efforts to prevent U.S. military products from being illegally exported and falling into the wrong hands."

According to the factual basis filed in this case, which Tappin admitted was truthful and accurate, Tappin knowingly violated U.S. law by obtaining the specialized batteries under false pretenses.

Tappin engaged in phone and email communications with an undercover federal agent to discuss payment and delivery arrangements. In October 2006, Tappin wired about $25,000 from a London financial institution to a U.S. bank account as payment for five of the specialized batteries. Using false shipping documentation and without an export license, Tappin arranged to transfer the batteries to the United Kingdom through his specifically designated freight forwarders, which violates export control regulations.

During the investigation, Tappin agreed to reimburse the undercover agent for $5,000 in fines purportedly being assessed against him by U.S. Customs and Border Protection after it seized the shipment of batteries. Tappin, admittedly, also caused Caldwell to travel to San Antonio in January 2007 to take delivery of the batteries, ensure that they were shipped to him, and to pay the undercover agent $5,000 for the current fines. Tappin, in court, acknowledged that his anticipated profit from the transaction was $11,357.14.

In 2007, Gibson and Caldwell were sentenced to 24 months and 20 months, respectively, in federal prison for their roles in the scheme.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg McDonald, Western District of Texas, prosecuted this case.